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Introduction to Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas

Billy J. Kramer

Part of the British Invasion and Merseybeat scene in the 60s music era, Billy J. Kramer and The Dakotas emerged with hits, most of which were comprised of Lennon/McCartney-­penned compositions either specially catered for the band or never made to the Beatles’ catalog. Also managed by The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein, Billy J. and the Dakotas reached the peak of the UK charts with “Little Children” in 1965. The beat boom scene faded in mid­-1960s, so did the chart-­making power of the band whose single, the Bacharach­-David penned “Trains and Boats and Planes” landed at #12 on the UK charts and was also their last charting song. Bandleader Billy J. Kramer (birth name William Howard Ashton) left the group and started a solo career which he has continued for many years. He now performs mostly for the oldies music circuit

Beginnings and Rise to Fame

Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas were part of the British Invasion that dominated the American music scene in the 1960s, and also of Liverpool’s Merseybeat scene. The band was composed of front man Billy J. Kramer (born William Howard Ashton in 1943, in Bootle, Lancashire, England), lead guitarist Mike Maxfield, rhythm guitarist Robin McDonald, bass guitarist Ray Jones, and drummer Tony Mansfield (who is the older brother of English singer Elkie Brooks).

Kramer used to front a previous group The Coasters, who hailed from Manchester. The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein picked another Manchester-­based backing band the Dakotas and took them as one of the growing number of artists under his wings.

Like the Beatles, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas were signed to Parlophone label and were assigned to the Fab Four’s producer George Martin. Initially, Epstein wanted them to be named Billy J. Kramer with The Dakotas to keep their own identities.

They released their first single, a cover of the Beatles’ “Do You Want to Keep a Secret?” which was composed by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, of course, and originally appeared on the Beatles’ debut album Please Please Me. The Dakotas’ version of the song went to #2 on the UK singles chart in mid­-1963.

Billy J. Kramer and the Dakota’s second hit “Bad to Me,” was also credited to Lennon- McCartney (although it was actually written by Lennon). The B­-side of “Bad To Me” was “I’ll Be On My Way,” which was considered to be the first Lennon-McCartney (although primarily written by McCartney) composition to be “given away.” Billy J. Kramer’s version of it topped the UK singles chart in 1963, and also entered into the US Billboard Hot 100 for the first time, eventually peaking at #9.

Another Lennon-McCartney song (but primarily written by McCartney), “I’ll Keep You Satisfied,” was released. It reached #4 on the UK singles chart, while it peaked at #30 on the US Billboard Hot 100. These songs catapulted Kramer into stardom, thanks for the large number of Lennon-­McCartney songs that had been given to him. Other Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas’ songs that were composed by the Beatles’ chief songwriters were “I Call Your Name” (which had also been recorded by the Beatles themselves) and “From a Window” (written by McCartney).

The Dakotas, meanwhile, enjoyed some success on their own via their instrumental “The Cruel Sea,” which was composed by Maxfield. It reached #18 on the UK charts in mid­-1963.

It seemed that Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas would remain in the shadow of Lennon­ McCartney. So for a change, Kramer picked a different song for a single, “Little Children,” which was written by J. Leslie McFarland and Mort Schuman. It gave Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas their second and last UK #1 hit, as well as their last US Top Ten smash at #7.

“From A Window” proved to be Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas’ last Top 10 hit in the UK (at #10), and last US Top 40 hit (at #23) in 1964.

Band Members

Here’s a closer look at each member and their role within the band:

  1. Billy J. Kramer (William Howard Ashton) – Lead Vocals: Born on August 19, 1943, in Bootle, Liverpool, England, Billy J. Kramer was the charismatic frontman of the group. His smooth, emotive voice was a perfect fit for the band’s repertoire, primarily consisting of pop and rock ‘n’ roll numbers, many of which were penned by Lennon-McCartney. Kramer’s stage presence and vocal ability played a significant role in the band’s popularity.
  2. Mike Maxfield – Lead Guitar: As the band’s lead guitarist, Maxfield was known for his innovative and melodic guitar playing. He contributed significantly to the band’s sound, crafting memorable riffs that complemented their songs’ lyrical content. Maxfield’s musicianship was integral in hits like “Bad to Me” and “Little Children.”
  3. Ray Jones – Bass Guitar: Jones provided the solid bass foundation crucial for the band’s rhythm section. His playing underpinned the melodic structures of their songs, offering depth and driving the band’s overall sound. The bass lines in their music helped to anchor the group’s performances, both live and in the studio.
  4. Tony Mansfield – Drums: Mansfield’s drumming brought energy and dynamism to The Dakotas’ music. His ability to switch between different rhythms and styles contributed to the band’s versatility, allowing them to explore a range of musical genres within their performances and recordings.
  5. Robin MacDonald – Rhythm Guitar: MacDonald’s rhythm guitar playing was an essential component of the band’s sound, providing a harmonic layer that complemented Maxfield’s lead guitar work. His contributions helped to fill out the band’s sound, creating a rich, full backdrop for Kramer’s vocals.

Chart-Topping Hits

Billy J. Kramer and The Dakotas enjoyed a string of successful singles that cemented their place in the 60s music scene. Notably, many of their hits were penned by Lennon-McCartney, giving them a direct line to some of the era’s finest songwriting. Their top hits include:

  • “Do You Want to Know a Secret?” – Their first major hit, this song was a Lennon-McCartney composition originally performed by The Beatles. Kramer’s version soared to the top of the charts, showcasing the band’s potential to the world.
  • “Bad to Me” – Another Lennon-McCartney gift, this ballad became a number one hit in the UK, highlighting Kramer’s tender vocal delivery.
  • “Little Children” – Perhaps their most famous track, this song not only topped the UK charts but also enjoyed success in the United States, showcasing the band’s international appeal.

Interesting Facts

  • Beatles Connection: The close relationship between Billy J. Kramer and The Dakotas and The Beatles was instrumental in their rise to fame. Managed by Brian Epstein and often receiving songs from Lennon and McCartney, their fortunes were intertwined with the Fab Four.
  • Name Origins: Billy J. Kramer adopted the “J” in his stage name on the suggestion of John Lennon, who believed it sounded more interesting. The Dakotas were named after the Dakota Building in New York, reflecting the American influence on their music.
  • Cultural Impact: Their music captured the optimism and youthful energy of the early 60s, contributing to the soundtrack of a generation. Despite being somewhat overshadowed by their Merseybeat contemporaries, their songs remain enduring classics of the era.

The Band’s Split, Billy J. Kramer’s Solo Career, and the Newer Dakotas (without him)

With the decline of the beat scene and mod groups such as the Kinks and the Who starting to dominate, Kramer and the Dakotas obviously struggled on the charts. Their last major hit was a Bacharach-David composition “Trains and Boats and Planes” which peaked at #12 on the UK singles chart (#47 US pop, #10 US adult contemporary).

In the mid-­1960s Kramer and the Dakotas split, and around the same time Kramer launched his solo career, mostly finding his audience in the nostalgia circuit. He also released a couple of singles in the early 1980s which failed to chart. In 2013 Kramer released his new album I Won The Fight, consisted of songs penned by Kramer and also covers. The Dakotas, meanwhile, reunited in the 1980s with newer members, and still tour and record up to this day.

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